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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Educational Value of Natural History

by Mrs. Edward Sieveking
Volume 14, no. 9, September, 1903, pgs. 641-653


Have you ever on a stormy, gusty afternoon in late autumn, when the wind was slashing the rain across the window panes in great weals of water, and the reins on the shoulders of Nature seemed grasped by the very spirit of tempest, while across her sides was flung fiercely ever and anon the cutting thong of the whirlwind—have you ever felt that it would be "good" for you to leave your pleasant, cozy fire-lit room, and go out into the outside world of storm—to join in it all, to catch, as it were, something of the spirit of the thing, to make it for a time your personal environment—to get, in fact, what it has to give you, as a bracing, invigorating experience?

We have led, it may be, too introspective an existence; we have padded our daily life too carefully with the cushions of luxurious circumstances; we have regulated our days and weeks and months with too close regard to "as it was in the beginning": in other words, we have let ourselves get too much in the habit of taking our precedents the first thing on sitting down to our meal of life like good children take the bread and butter at tea-time, and of letting them colour our impressions of things and possibly our judgments, so that we see our environments as we have been told to see them, and not as we should have seen them through the mental eyes of our own personal discrimination. We have, in fact, taken our precedents too much for granted. Then perhaps some moral upheaval takes place, unexpectedly, in our own little world.

We had built a house of life for ourselves, and fashioned it, as it were, before and behind: fitted all our treasures into it—perhaps centered all our interests in it. Then a day comes when our house falls to pieces at our feet, and we are left looking disconsolately at the ruin of our hopes. Or we have suffered some other reverse at the hands of Fate—some injury, maybe, to a mental or physical limb. As the words of a modern play express it, "you get a God-given power knocked out of your hands by the merest accident," and are practically undone by its loss. You are, in effect, "hipped" as regards you profession, and your usefulness in life goes with a limp ever afterwards. Or perhaps, as regards the two chief things in life—friendship and love—we have suffered loss, disappointment, emptiness. We are, as regards them, standing idle in the market-place—no one perhaps has chartered our goods—we are standing with our hands before us, and not in anyone else's.

But whatever it is—whatever slap in the face we have had from the hands of Fate—we have pro tem, to put up with the unwelcome companionship of Failure at bed and board—Failure, who knocks at the door of our hearts insistently, relentlessly, until we open to her, when she says, "I am here! You have got to reckon with me!" And it is when we are counting the cost of failure that such a day in the outside world as I have been describing appeals to us most powerfully. It is then that it is a relief to go out of doors, never mind in what stress of weather—nay, the greater the stress, the more regenerating vigor and renewed hope it puts into the heart. The very sting of the rain-drops on our cheek—the thong of the wind as it cuts across our face—the yellow flare of the stormy sunset on the sky line, while higher up is flung wide the long arm of the rainbow, clad in its radiant sleeve of many colours—the steely-grey glisten of the wet road, and beside it, the brown swirling stream at our feet, wind-blown and goose-fleshed, roughed up as if combed by a broad rake—the hoarse prolonged caw of the rooks high up in the "twangled branches" (as I heard a little boy express it lately) of the wood near by, that sounds like retreating waves on a pebbled sea-shore—all these things strike the much-needed, long-desired note of contrast in our mood of life. The out-of-door environment has already begun its work in us. We have got the "touch of Nature" that we so sorely needed to make us once more in kinship with the world. Already the self that was baffled—puzzled—despairing—has taken heart of grace. Already we feel we can face the disaster that, indoors, seemed so crushing, so overwhelming—like a man, yes—even though as far as regards the question of sex, one may happen to be a woman! The other-worldliness of the great heart of Nature is upon is, and it strangely dwarfs our indoor concerns— those concerns that beset and cramp and hinder us, until by drawing further away from them we get then at last into proper focus.

In the man or woman who steps over the Rubicon that lies between the world of indoors and the world of out-of-doors, there takes place in some moods just such a transfiguring change as occurred in the troubling of those waters in old records.

What was it that healed all those waiting, and, in one way or other, disabled human beings around the pool? What was it but the idea—the suggestion of regeneration? It is and has ever been the same. To the man or the woman who can first seize and assimilate an idea, that idea becomes, to his or her mind, the Tree of Life, whereon grow leaves of healing. We all appreciate the truth of the dictum, that to love a thing, you must first of all have the beginnings of it in yourself. Surely it was not the mere fact of the angel stepping down and troubling the pool, but the attitude of mind of the waiting people which availed. The idea of the necessity for the stirring anew of a Divine principle in their lives—a regenerating movement—a change of environment in the circumstances of their existence.

Is there not something of this idea which appeals powerfully and insistently to the man who goes out into the invigorating stir without, in the great world of storm-driven Nature, in times of great inner stress? And to my own mind it is largely this which we want to put our children into touch with. We want to get back, as it were, to life a simpler, less complicated, less artificial state. Anyway, if we don't want this, we do want to put into their hands a talisman that will be of unfailing help to them in later and more difficult years.

There is nothing in all the world quite like the pursuit, the study of Nature as shewn us in natural history. There is no hobby that develops quite the same temper of mind as that does. I think one cannot fail to notice this in every naturalist one has ever met. About everyone who has drunk deep at the wells of Nature, there is always a calm, absorbed freedom from mental stress, from emotional wear and tear. About the musician there is absorption, but there is also mental excitement, emotional development; about the artist, development in imagination, and emotionally also, only differently; there is nervous mental effort in the medical profession, and the same in the office of the Priest, as also in any profession that makes a demand on the mind in thought, discrimination and responsibility. There is no mental strain in the study of natural history; the whole atmosphere of the thing forbids it. It meets us half-way, as it were, in whatever mood we are, whatever age we have reached, to whatever sex or class we belong. Meets us and takes us off to a new world of life, to a new way of looking at our own world. It has a power of Divinity in it, for it makes all things new to anyone, man, woman, or child who comes to it not pre-occupied, and with an open mind, ready to be taught a wider education of life at first hand.

There is this about the education that comes to us in the out-of-door study of natural history: it never lets us go when once it has taken hold of us. It becomes a veritable absorption, a hobby, which stands us in good stead, and will keep in working order from childhood till old age.

Most of us, I suppose, have had it proved to us, that there is nothing in the whole world that saves us, that rescues us, as can some pursuit or hobby. A personal attraction may fail, may change, may go out of our lives altogether, but an impersonal attraction, a hobby, calls and calls continuously, and we cannot choose but listen and follow; it has ever more and more to give us, and it never fails us at our hour of need; it gives us distraction, it gives us discoveries, it gives us the "crowded hour" for which we are longing. And in the study of natural history, it is here, waiting for us quietly at our own gates. We need not go far afield to seek it, it is close to us, in our midst. All that is needed is to focus our mental eyesight, and to study patiently, consistently, thoughtfully, sympathetically.

But in trying to bring our children into touch with the study of natural history, let us, before all things, try to get them, not to study it with the object of personal appropriation, as so many do at present, but with that recognizing and appreciating wild Nature in its haunts. There has always been too much of the spirit of personal appropriation connected with our study of natural history; indeed, sometimes there has been a wanton destruction of life not in connection with the study at all, but simply and solely because of some senseless and decadent fashion, and because women have still loved to have it so, even when they knew that their own personal decoration necessitated the wanton, brutal, and demoralizing destruction of defenseless creatures.

I cannot help speaking thus strongly on the subject of aigrettes [feather plumes], because I feel that while we, weakly, as grown women, tacitly consent to a fashion which costs so much in moral all round—if one may so express it—as well as in suffering to defenseless creatures, we cannot make the same stand as otherwise thoughtlessly we might do against our children's habit—more especially that of our boys—of taking nests, or eggs, or other wise thoughtlessly making war against animal life.

It has often been a marvel to me that children should have so often that sort of curious callousness with regard to animal suffering, that one notices in them from time to time. It must in every case be due to blunted perceptions; and our part in these cases as mothers and fathers surely is to take our knives of keener and matured thought, and, with them, to sharpen the points of their perceptions, that they may clearly mark the line where their "negligences and ignorances"—to call them by no stranger word—begin to hurt another living creature, who, being to all practical intents and purposes voiceless, cannot speak for or defend itself. It is a very true saying that "more ill is wrought by want of thought than this world reeks of," but it seems to me that it should be pressed home that that same "want of thought" is always someone's culpability. Want of thought in anyone To-day is practically someone's dereliction of duty Yesterday; consequently, if a child of ours is careless and indifferent as to the suffering of some bird or animal to-day, it means, to all intents and purposes, that we ourselves have been remiss in instilling the idea of kindness to dumb creatures in the yesterday of their childhood. Some children, indeed, seem born with the capacity for a delicate perception of the point of view of animal life, but in others this idea has to be planted and watered continually, before it takes root at all.

In this connection, I cannot help reading to you Walter Pater's words with regard to his own feeling, as a child, for animals' sufferings:—"There were the little sorrows of the dumb animals too—of the white angora, with a dark tail like an ermine's, and a face like a flower, who fell into lingering sickness, and became quite delicately human in its valetudinarianism, and there came a hundred different expressions of voice—how it grew worse and worse till it began to feel the light too much for it, and at last after one wild morning of pain, the little soul flickered away from the body, quite worn to death already, and now but feebly retaining it." Then he goes on to describe how he had been given a starling, which had been caught by one of the men about his father's house for him, and he adds that "he meant to treat it kindly; but in the night its young ones could be heard crying after it, and the responsive cry of the mother bird towards them; and at last, with the first light, though not till after some debate with himself, he went down and opened the cage, and saw the sharp bound prisoner up to the nestlings; and therewith came the sense of remorse, that he too had become an accomplice in moving, to the limit of his small power, the springs and handles of that great machine in things, constructed so ingeniously, to play painful fugues on the delicate nerve work of living creatures."

It seems to me such a mistake to let children keep in cages, as pets, wild birds or animals, whose habits they could study so far more naturally in their own haunts. And this habit of caging them is mostly due to that selfish habit of personal appropriation, the narrow longing after personal possession, which, when encouraged in children in this way or in others, very often runs as a dark thread all through the warp and woof of their after life as grown-up men and women. It is this which is to blame for the appreciable fact of the great lack of intuitive feeling for others which shows itself later in so many ways. The true lover of birds and animals recognizes that it is getting to know them in their haunts, and not in cages or as stuffed specimens, that is "the thing" that gives the keenest, most lasting pleasure. As Professor Miall said the other day at the Royal Institution, "It is not to make collections, but to study the life-histories of animals and insects which (as exemplified in the case of the diptera) are still very much to seek"; and, "that the student of natural history should not be content with facts, but should make them, by personal research, a basis of though-building and reasoning-out for himself."

Most people would agree, I think, in the fact that many collections are a weariness of the flesh to those who are condemned to be shown them. They are only one degree better than the inevitable views of places you have never seen, or photograph books filled with portraits, the originals of whom you feel not the slightest desire ever to meet, which some people always produce for their unlucky guests. No, there is a way of studying wild nature altogether dissociated from the sense of personal possession, and it is in this way that Stevenson's famous obiter dictum applies, "that to travel happily is better than to arrive." For to "travel happily" as a friend, and not as a destroying angel among the haunts of wild birds and animals, is better in every sense as regards our own personal pleasure and our own gain in intimate knowledge of their ways. High above all childish experiences of keen healthful excitement, I place the finding of the nest of some rare bird.

I remember now, as vividly as if they had only happened yesterday, three keenly exciting incidents in my own childhood's natural history experiences. The keen delight and glamour that surrounded the findings of my first chiff-chaff's nest one June evening in the old home garden; the coming unexpectedly, while crossing a far-off meadow newly mown, on a lark's nest with four softly-tinted eggs laid snugly in it; the discovery of a whale, washed up after some storm, on the sea-shore at Pevensey. I am not pretending that I personally, at the age of seven, was the proud discoverer of the latter, because I was not: I was only one among the group of admirers who came later on! I should perhaps add that this last impression might not be quite so vivid had it not been that my nurse brought me a photograph of the stranded whale.

To think that you can study the real nature of a wild bird or wild animal when it is caged, is about as sensible as to imagine that you know the true individuality of a shy boy, when you have only seen him some evening at a party, leaning awkwardly and shamefacedly against the wall, feeling altogether ill-at-ease and out of his element in his best clothes and heartily wishing himself anywhere else in the world. Is there any sight much more pathetic to the grown-up person than the Zoological Gardens? The general out-at-elbows, depressed, come-down-in-the-world air that sits on nearly all the creatures, makes the whole place seem like a vast dreary prison-house, wherein the one unceasing, though speechless, cry is for "freedom" simply. There is too much tragedy of soul in the eyes of some of the animals for one to be able to meet the despair of the gaze that looks out at you from behind the bars with equanimity, if one possesses any sense of the rightness or wrongness of the imprisonment of members of the dumb half of creation as a "show" for our amusement. My own feeling is that our methods of imprisoning, robbing and destroying animals at our own will and pleasure are quite indefensible, and show a lamentable lack of a sense of responsibility. Of course in this connection I am also referring to some of the sports (!) (please allow me to read out my note of exclamation in brackets which follow the word "sports") which obtain in the mother country, and which cannot be considered seriously in any other light than in that which shows them to be a shame and a decadence to civilized people. Whippet racing, for instance, is pre-eminently a blot on the page of any country's pastimes, and is a pandering to a morbid, debased desire for excitement. [A whippet is a dog, similar to a greyhound.] In defense of the detour in a lecture on the educational value of natural history, in my opinion, in connection with this education is, that the true mental drift it should induce is a real sympathy and an enlightened point of view in all our retaliations with wild nature.

If we teach our children to study wild nature in its haunts, not from a personal appropriation point of view, but from the true student point of view, when they grow up, the student point of view will have grown with their growth, and along with it will have developed a spirit of reverence for all life, and a kindly feeling of protection for the weaker thing, and, through this, the brutal longing to kill will have died out. Their love for animals will have taught them how to be gentle with all who are weak, with all who are dependant. Grown-up people are often, it seemed to me, very much to blame in the arbitrary likings and disliking, praising and banning of certain animals, certain insects; and this favoritism largely influences children.

We have far too little conscience as regards the destruction of, and methods of destruction of, some birds and animals. Very often it is to satisfy some indefensible, arbitrary, barbarous fashion—such as the bearing reign—very often it is simply a decision in connection with the fashion of headgear; or again, it is in obedience to some traditional antipathy, as in the case of our ruthless dispatching of a spider or an earwig. But whatever it is, it often causes unnecessary, unjustified suffering. One is often tempted to wish, when one sees the hasty, furtive stamp of the foot on some traveling spider or earwig by some mother, that she should be brought to see how retrograde an educational act it is when done before little children. If questioned as to the morality of the act, she would probably answer that they were "nasty little things, and had cruel ways of killing their prey, as well as unpleasant, creepy methods of getting under one's dress." But both the spider and the earwig might be, with advantage, taken by her, nevertheless, as object lessons for some idle hour.

The modern society had chosen, it is true, to copy an insect, but it is the butterfly, paying her round of afternoon calls every afternoon on certain classes of flowers; she had not seriously laid to heart the lesson of patience towards her own children set her by the spider, nor the more opposite one still, of the abusive earwig, who is, at any rate, a true mother, watching over her brood as assiduously as a hen her chickens, long after they are abroad in the world. The society mother has much to learn in that respect from the despised and rejected earwig, if one might venture to suggest such a thing sub rosé! One might perhaps also, in passing, be allowed the conjecture that the reason we decry the plebeian sparrow, and extol the aristocratic robin, is largely due to that which guides us so much in social questions; we prefer him because he can dress better and has a more attractive, polished exterior—the cut of the sparrow's coat so lamentably suggests the cheap tailor, and his individuality is uncouth. He would, in fact, be said to belong indisputably, among birds, to the class society which I heard a lady describe the other day as "the Lower Orders" (with a big "O"), an expression which I should greatly see turned out of doors and denied all association with the mother tongue.

Let us, when taking our children into the porch of the great and wonderful building not made with hands—the out-of-door world of natural history—to study at first the ways, the reasoning powers, the lives of wild nature, let us first of all be careful that they go to it prepared to learn reverently, though fully, and not in the spirit of self appropriation, but having previously "taken off their shoes" metaphorically speaking, so that they should disturb and hurt the great community of wild creatures as little as may be. The really great men in all ages are always great-hearted, are tenderly pitiful over all weakness and suffering: it is they who would always turn aside to rescue an animal in pain: it is they who have the inner sympathetic ear for the weakly cry, an eye for those fallen beside the way. One had only to look back into the past and see many and many great individuals, who, beside all other gifts, had that added sense of intuitive sympathy with the dumb creation. One can look far back in the blue distance of time to St. Francis of Assisi with his "little sisters the birds" to whom he preached, and over whom he used to make the Sign of the Cross, surely in token of his belief that they possessed in some degree, the spiritual sense as well as ourselves: to St. Patrick, building his great church on the very spot where he had rescued the fawn and the doe; to St. Columba, blessing the white horse who came to show his sympathy to him as he lay dying; or one can look nearer at hand to such naturalists as Wordsworth who spoke of the

"Hills . . . . . .
Which like a book preserved the memory,

Of the dumb animals which he had saved,
Had fed and sheltered,
Linking to such acts the certainty of honorable gain"

—to Izaak Walton, with his injunction to every man to " handle the little humble worm as if he loved it"; to Sir Walter Scott, whose big heart had as much room in it for animals as for those of his own kind; to George Sand, to Whyte Melville, as to many others in all ages.

Coming down to one's own day, I know of a man—a young man—who, being in London one August evening and walking home to his rooms, came across a cat—one of those unfortunates who are yearly turned adrift during the summer exodus of the household to whom they belong—who mewed pitifully to him as if to ask an alms of him, as he was passing her own particular area gate. He stopped, spoke kindly to her and stroked her, and in doing so noticed how thin and hungry she looked. He decided to give up his stroll and went off instead some little distance to a baker's shop, bought some food for her, and returned, waiting by her till she had eaten it all. It struck me when I heard it as being an act of real knight errantry, a profession whose doors are not so crowded as they should be nowadays. And with our children, especially our little children, we should before all things, I think, impress upon them from the first the sacredness of life in our study of animal life in its haunts.

There is too much thoughtless cruelty about some forms of natural history-izing. We should teach them that whenever they are able to rescue some helpless, injured creature, that a new light has come into those hours of life; that the day, indeed, has been put away among the lavender in the shelves of memory as a red-letter one, and that in years to come just such a glow will rise over their thoughts in remembering it, as would come into them at the memory of an opportunity seized of rendering some kindly service beside the way to one of their own kind. We should teach them that any act of cruelty to however small a creature disqualifies them, so to speak, from the true inner study of natural history, by blunting and dulling the perception of sympathy and intuitive thought. Animals only reveal themselves to those they love.

But if we impress continually on our children the point of kindness to all animals great and small, if we, in fact, train them up thus in the way they should go, when they are public school boys or public school girls, they will not depart from it, whatever others do, for it will be by then a part of their very nature. And while in this connection I should like to ask, for after-discussion possibly, the question which suggests itself to me, as to the supposed reason why, as a rule, boys seem to be so much more disposed towards cruelty to animals than girls are? One wonders whether it is not due to some difference of education, and if so, whether the system of co-education will not go far to check the tendency. It arises in so many cases, I think, from the difficulty of realizing the animal's point of view.

I remember a little conversation in connection with the subject of children's difficulty in understanding a fact from the animal's point of view, which took place between myself and a little girl of five. I had suggested to her that she should go out into the garden to join a tabby cat who was slowly strolling up the path, her back towards us. "That cat doesn't like me," she said after a short pause. "Oh! Why not?" I asked. "Because one day, when I was in the kitchen, I took away her supper," she replied. "Well, you wouldn't like someone to come and take away your tea, would you?" I answered; and then she came out with the delightful rejoiner, "I shouldn't mind: you see she hadn't got any good feeling!" which I took to mean that the little girl thought the cat had failed in the game of "making pretend"; for she had meant the removal of the supper to be some sort of fun, and the cat had stupidly declined to play! Of course, the purely temporary character of the affair had not struck the cat, and this it was which had introduced what an old nurse of my acquaintance used to call "an unpleasantness" between the two!

And now, in conclusion, I should like just to accentuate one or two suggestions with regard to the practical working of the natural history schemes for children. Firstly, there can be nothing but praise for that educational scheme carried out so splendidly by our own Society—the natural history walks for children, conducted by some naturalist—the only danger in the way being, as it seems to me, a tendency towards over-hasty jumping to conclusions as regards the specialization of specimens found during the walk. Secondly, I think some natural history diary of discoveries, findings and notings down of dates should be kept by the children. Thirdly, that they should be urged to look up the description of some rare bird or animal and try to classify it for themselves. And fourthly (this is for older children), that they be allowed to keep a big bowl of water beetles, etc., and should note down curious occurrences, of which there are sure to be an exciting amount. Lastly, that we should forgive mess for the sake of science, if one might speak as bigly as that in talking of such small beginnings in the study of a subject with such endless outlets for further discoveries as that of natural history. If the study brings along with it dirty boots, it brings also those inestimable blessings—a wholesome, healthy mind, with a calm outlook, at peace from itself.

As long ago as the year 1834, in a Standard Natural History Book, Robert Mudie—whose delightful volumes on "British Birds" are familiar to everyone—who wrote these words: "It is certain that there is a spirit awakened all over the Kingdom to the love and study of nature, of which we have had no example in modern time . . . The study of Nature will bring the different ranks together (speaking of the splitting up into classes of men and women) . . . when they go to hunt, to fish, or to any other sport or occupation in the fields. Nature thus makes brotherhood, and if all mankind would study Nature, all mankind would be brothers."

This, then, is an additional incentive towards the education of natural history, that we shall learn a truer Christian Socialism in the pursuit of Nature, untrammeled as she is by the artificial boundaries and restrictions which hedge us round and keep us in on every side.



Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Hana 'ia i Hawai'i, October 2008